By Common Consent

Today we had our ward conference. I’ve wondered for years why we still have these things, but I think the reason may actually be found in this post (maybe you can find it). This Sunday, as we were invited to raise our hands in favor, or not, of certain office holders in the Church, I felt the conviction in my own mind that these people were sustained by God, and I should follow suit. I did.

At the same time, I started to consider what it means to offer consent. Its immediate foundation is in Protestantism, and especially in American Protestantism and American governmental ideals. We don’t see it much in the texts with which we claim an ancient partnership.[1] In Mormon beginnings, early instruction suggests that ordination should not take place without consent of those who would be governed/instructed by those so ordained.[2]

The process has undergone fundamental changes in Mormonism. Its first exercise on April 6, 1830, amounted to 4 men consenting to have 2 men be their teachers. “Yeah, we’re ok with it – status quo.” Sounds like what we practice today, doesn’t it? But in fact the process was much richer than that. Methodist and Reformed Baptist (Disciples of Christ) practice was strong in early Mormonism. Aside from the Book of Mormon being used (especially the book of Moroni) as organizational and liturgical outline, much of early praxis and terminology copied that of Protestantism.[3]

In terms of common consent, Church meetings were organized by vote of attendees. Meetings would be chaired by, not necessarily Joseph Smith, but whoever got the vote. The recorder of proceedings was also voted in. Candidates were defined by preliminary discussion. It took a fair number of years of this before people settled on the notion that Church office should determine meeting leader.[4] The impulse for electing presiders on the spur of the moment at gatherings was pretty strong. Imagine ward conference discussion: the meeting is open for discussion of chair. Brother Bosworth gets the vote (a vocal semi-literate member who a large number find has nice hair).[5]

Late in Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo tenure, it was pretty well established that he would conduct or assign others to conduct public Church meetings. In outlying areas however, things were not cut and dried. In any case, common consent still had the force of elective power. Witness Joseph Smith’s wish to discard Rigdon from the Church presidency. It was put to a vote. Joseph lost.

Conferences themselves were fora for debate and decision. Church discipline could be conducted in a general conference and charges brought up and considered. Good Protestant practice in some respects I might add. Common consent meant democratic vote. The Disciples’ brain trust, Walter Scott and Alex Campbell, had hard rules about congregations. The power was in the people for selection. No such thing as special priesthood. Nothing top down there. Even most Hollywood depictions of 19th century congregations show things operating this way. Common knowledge.[6]

Of course, Mormonism is all about special priesthood. The 1829 angelic ordinations came to define Mormonism by 1835, textually, and among much of the illuminati at least. So how to reconcile the Methodist-Baptist heritage and angelic ordinations? It took a while for sure. Common consent was part of this. By Utah, Brigham Young could feel insulted if someone undertook to start a meeting for which he was late (no atomic synchronized chronometers then, so it could be anybody’s guess what the real start time was). But if the elective nature of ordination had been diluted,[7] congregation leadership was another matter. In Mormon communities, even if leadership had stabilized to long serving bishops or “acting” bishops, the selection of such persons was often a public process, and they could be voted out the same way. After 1900, visiting authorities could still call on local active priesthood for selective votes. The current practice of “called after interviews” in stake presidency reorganization is a vestige of that idea.

Releasing established permanent officers evolved, with changes often caused by a change in public sentiment.[8] This can still happen of course, but it’s the exception. Mostly all this now takes place under the aegis of private inspiration to the defined responsible officer. Time for a new bishop? Stake president decides that and then puts forward a name up and down the line. Calls in old bishop in private, tells him he’s done (after calling the new bishop of course). No one has a chance now to say, “no we’ll keep the old guy.” Release is done in private. Congregations do not review this, they only get the chance to indicate their perfunctory thanks, “by the same sign.” Oh for those exciting days of yore.

Along with the change in procedure came a change in perception of procedure. Selection should be done by inspiration (see article of faith 5) but the congregation was excluded from the authoritative class.[9]

So common consent moved from the priesthood of all believers idea to the top down model implied by angelic ordination. I find this to be connected to, of all things, Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation. And probably every present thrust of Mormonism is. (grin)

————————–
[1] Sure, you can point to instances like Exodus 24:3 or stretching a bit further, Acts 1:26. Sometimes elective process as in Mosiah 29:25 has been interpreted as common consent.

[2] HC 1:61.

[3] It hasn’t been that long since the LDS Sunday School was called the “Deseret Sunday School Union.” Yeah. Expansive Methodism here.

[4] There was a mild sort of regulation in D&C 20 based on pecking order of ordination. Same for D&C 107.

[5] I’m only being slightly silly here. Many early gatherings involved families and family loyalty often dictated vote (no voting by women). The possible egalitarian nature of leadership is illustrated by the “Hiram Page incident.” It took some time before *not* selecting JS as spur of the moment leader would be considered an insult (whatever the reasons may have been for calling foul).

[6] See most any issue of the Millennial Harbinger. (Ok, I can’t think of the reference I was going to put here.)

[7] Brigham Young and others freely ordained people without congregational acknowledgement. That practice extended to authorization to perform sealings eventually, which led, by a tortured process, to the establishment of underground 20th century polygamy and retrenchment about public authorization for most anything. Admission to the Anointed Quorum is interesting here.

[8] Heber J. Grant narrates one such incident regarding a stake president in parts south of Utah County.

[9] In Kirtland, many felt that if Joseph went astray, he could be discarded without effecting their authoritative abilities as congregants and officers. Brigham Young famously went against this idea, telling the proposers that they would lose the salvific powers and blessing of divinity by doing that. This despite the fact of a prescribed way of getting rid of the president of the high priesthood.

Comments

  1. Last Lemming says:

    Witness Joseph Smith’s wish to discard Rigdon from the Church presidency. It was put to a vote. Joseph lost.

    I know Joseph frequently put things to a vote when he met resistance and he almost always won. Has anybody compiled a list of votes that he lost? Or is this the only one?

  2. Senile Old Fart says:

    Sustaining “votes” today have all the suspense of votes in the old Politboro. Saints and comrades.

  3. Well, I’ve been in meetings where shouting matches developed over the sustaining a new bishop. Pretty cool, or not, as you may guess.

  4. The casting of lots seems to have had a long track-record in scriptural revelation as well as in democractic institutions. But how would one go about reconciling the apparent contraditions between the two processes–election by consent or lottery?

  5. Last Lemming, JS got overruled in Kirtland from time to time, the council system was not necessarily friendly to who ever presided. That can’t happen now, by decree. When Pres. Hinckley was alive, they decided to retrench in the way they did business. Something came up and they were discussing it. GBH offered an opinion and TSM said, ok, so that’s what we’re doing. When GBH objected they all said, – well you said you wanted to do thus and so – discussion over. It’s a sensitive bit of tradition reversal.

  6. D. Fletcher says:

    It’s good to get an overview of everybody’s calling, who’s doing what, once a year.

  7. I meant to add, that BKP’s dictum: “which way do you face?” for bishops, etc. plays to the exclusion of congregational power. It’s the other end of the spectrum from 1831. While Pres. Packer’s theme might now be considered an ideal, I think in practice you get other stuff going on, especially on the Wasatch Front. Monument Park, anyone?

    D. Fletcher: yeah, it’s a good time to see the new blood too and whether the current leadership has the appreciation vibe.

  8. “I find this to be connected to, of all things, Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation.”
    What are you referring to?

  9. Ah. This is a puzzle. But WW’s revelation is connected to lots of stuff and many of the ways we do business and how we understand the significance of what we do, soteriologically speaking. It is effectively the end of millennialism, etc., etc.

  10. “Monument Park, anyone?”

    What does this refer to?

  11. “Brother Bosworth gets the vote (a vocal semi-literate member who a large number find has nice hair).”

    Wow. I know Scott B. is used to hearing worse, but at some point he’s got to stick up for himself.

  12. Monument Park stake was known at one for having a high concentration of general authorities at least that was my impression at one time.

  13. Oh, OK, Thanks.

  14. Martin, I have no idea what you mean.

  15. “…connected to, of all things, Wilford Woodruff’s 1894 revelation. And probably every present thrust of Mormonism is.”

    Couldn’t agree more (grin).

    I think the bit about the temple quorum in note 7 is the most intriguing development during JS’s lifetime. Unanimous consent for admission by both men and women. And there were people that did not meet the threshold.

  16. ByTheRules says:

    Does the current de-emphasis of top down/Bishop administration and the re-emphasis of revelatory council (Ward Council) portend a reverse trend towards Common Consent?

  17. Stapley, the intrigues over getting past the vote were great. If you wanted to get in, you had to watch your step.

  18. Well, I’d be surprised if the recent ward council thing had much effect on this. High councils have been going the other way for the last half-century or more and they started out as high value. The GBH example above illustrates the high bar for consensus in Church settings, I think.

  19. WVS, I think Martin is making a joke. I assume you were not talking about Scott in your description of Brother Bosworth. We all know Scott has his issue regarding literacy, but no one with normal sight could possibly describe him as having nice hair.

  20. Last Lemming says:

    When Pres. Hinckley was alive, they decided to retrench in the way they did business. Something came up and they were discussing it. GBH offered an opinion and TSM said, ok, so that’s what we’re doing. When GBH objected they all said, – well you said you wanted to do thus and so – discussion over. It’s a sensitive bit of tradition reversal.

    Sorry, this story makes no sense. According to your rendition, GBH offered two opinions–the second being that discussion should not be cut off. That his opinion concerning the discussion was allegedly ignored provides sufficient precedent for me to reject the rule-by-decree assertion.

  21. Well they came to an understanding about GBH expressing opinions. Actually, it was a funny story I heard from someone who was there. When I wrote, “discussion over” that was a quote, but it was not actually the end of the discussion. They wanted some kind of clarification about when it *was* over. So, in a sense, the idea that he could terminate discussion was still in place. The sensitivity to language in such places is high.

  22. “I felt the conviction in my own mind that these people were sustained by God, and I should follow suit.”

    If someone is not sustained by God at the present, but God desires them to become worthy of the position they are called to, should we support & sustain them? Serious question…

    I’ve known people that were seemingly not fit for the call based on many un-Christlike things they said and did. But God gives each of us many chances to prove ourselves and hopefully become better individuals. So I gladly sustained them, and hoped I’d be able to provide whatever support I could for them to become what the Lord wants them and me to become.

    When I do soul searching, I always realize I don’t seem as worthy as I think I am for any calling I’ve received as well. Am I being sustained by the Lord in my current state of (un)worthiness or is the Lord sustaining me for what he wants me to become?

  23. Fascinating post.

  24. Thanks, B.Russ

  25. Great writing.
    While a sustaining vote might make you feel good inside, it definitely does a poor job of reflecting what people might actually think. It seems to mostly be a thing for either A) Public appearance or B) personal development. There might be an exception or two, but I hardly ever see a veto. And you know… this is ok with me!

    (The alternative seems far worse)

  26. WVS, I still don’t understand your reference – what specifically is the 1894 revelation? Can you share a link or a footnote?

  27. I have approached the problem from the other direction, i.e. if the “common consent” has no value, what does that imply about the object of “common consent?”

    If it made much of a difference who was appointed bishop, then the vote would be more important and more people would vote to the negative.

    The only difference the vote makes is when the appointee is a closet child molester or wife beater known only to a few. This is assuming the witnesses are willing to go on the record.

  28. Zefram: In 1894 Wilford Woodruff received a revelation regarding the sealing practices of Latter-day Saints. Up to that time, temple practice found LDS families sealed to some prominent Saint rather than their own ancestors. Woodruff’s revelation stopped this practice and made standard the practice of persons being sealed to ancestors in the usual current fashion. It’s more complicated than that, but essentially that’s it. A forthcoming issue of the Journal of Mormon History will have a couple of articles (by two BCC authors, J. Stapley and Sam Brown) addressing both the idea and the revelation. If you own or can locate a copy, see James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency. 3:251-60.

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